The two looked at each other from opposite sides of the courtroom. One was a young woman on trial for a gruesome double murder. The other was the man prosecuting her.
"Mr. Sells, I'm not guilty," Sarah Jo Pender said from the defendant's table during a brief recess in the middle of her trial.
Larry Sells, a Marion County, Indiana, deputy prosecutor, responded curtly: "Prove it."
Pender didn't have to; it was Sells' job to prove Pender was guilty. And he did.
Sells successfully convinced jurors that she manipulated her boyfriend into gunning down their two roommates. He later compared her to Charles Manson, the murderous cult leader from the 1960s, and Pender was sentenced to 110 years in prison.
More than two decades later, and now retired, Sells admits he has come to doubt much of the narrative about Pender - including his Manson comparison.
As he sat in the kitchen of his home in Westfield recalling that brief courtroom exchange with Pender, Sells said he is now convinced she was right. The then-23-year-old Indianapolis woman he helped put in prison is, in fact, not guilty - at least not of murder.
Evidence suggesting Pender may have been framed has gradually come to light over the past two decades.
Pender's former co-defendant and ex-boyfriend, Richard Hull, admitted in 2003 that only he was involved in the killings.
In 2009, Sells discovered his key witness, a jailhouse informant, was unreliable and should not have been put on the stand.
And a former Marion County Jail inmate admitted in 2019 that he wrote a bogus confession letter that a state expert testified in court was written by Pender.
TimelineSarah Jo Pender's crime, escape and court battle
Yet, Pender has lost all of her appeals. She has now lived 22 of her 43 years behind bars.
Sells said that's far too long for what is likely the worst thing she did: Helping Hull cover up the crime and dispose of the bodies.
"If I'd known the stuff that I know now, I mean, there's no way that I would have prosecuted her," Sells said. "I'm so sorry that she's been there, especially this long."
But Steve Cataldi, a brother of one of the victims, said Pender remains guilty in his mind, no matter what Sells said.
"She's an accomplice ... She helped dispose of the body. Regardless of what this prosecutor is saying, she's still guilty by association," Cataldi said, adding he believes the two planned the murders. "I'm at the point where I'm satisfied she's in jail for the rest of her life."
Pender told IndyStar in an interview last week inside a chapel at Rockville Correctional Facility that she's still hoping for justice.
"It makes me feel sad that I'm still in prison, mostly for my family and for all the memories that I haven't been able to make with them," Pender said, a tissue in hand and not holding back tears. "It makes me angry at this system for not working."
'I'm about to die'
Pender met Hull at a concert in 2000. He was a former football player. She was a college dropout who was working as a receptionist and clerk for a general contractor. It was a whirlwind romance between two twentysomethings. They moved in together in a house Pender rented after only a few months.
Pender said she wanted to be needed. A history of sexual abuse left her believing her self-worth was based on her sexuality, she explained. It convinced her she should play along, be sweet, loving and accommodating. She sought out men like Hull who were attracted to those qualities.
"He valued me for being everything he needed me to be," Pender said. "I had the car and the house. I had the Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-5 job, and then I allowed him to do whatever it is that he wanted to do."
She stayed in the relationship, she said, even after she began to see what she later came to realize were red flags. Even after finding out he was not really an electrician, but a drug dealer. She relented when he began selling drugs out of her house. She said she did so again on the morning of Oct. 24, 2000, when Hull asked her to buy a 12-gauge shotgun and ammunition. He told her he wanted to go and shoot in the country, she said, and with his criminal history, couldn't buy the gun by himself.
"I knew that was a bad idea. And yet I still did it," Pender said. "I did it because I wanted to make him happy."
Pender recalled coming home later that day and finding Hull wrapping what looked like a body. They both froze, she said. As it sunk in that Hull had just killed their two roommates, Pender said she heard a voice inside her head.
"It was my own voice," she said, "and very clearly it said, 'Oh, I'm about to die.'"
And so, again, she did what Hull told her to do: She helped him dump the bodies of Andrew Cataldi and Tricia Nordman in a dumpster in downtown Indianapolis.
This time, she said, it was out of fear he'd kill her, too.
"How could anybody think that they were safe after that?" Pender said.
In 2003, a year after Pender was convicted, Hull wrote an affidavit saying he alone was involved in the killings and he had set up Pender by convincing another inmate to write the confession letter. He testified to those facts during Pender's post-conviction relief hearing in 2005.
"The only reason why she was with me after the crime," Hull wrote, "was because she was scared for her life."
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But Hull, who had changed his account of the crime multiple times, was deemed to not be a credible witness. Pender's quest for a court intervention was denied.
"I was absolutely devastated because how could they not see this? How could they look at (the evidence) and say, 'Oh well?'" Pender said, in tears. "I got really depressed. I became suicidal. I decided that either I was going to kill myself or I was going to escape, and so I tried escaping first."
She did just that in 2008, setting off a new wave of national headlines about the Charles Manson-like killer on the loose - a menace to society. Court records say a correctional officer helped Pender escape by letting her hide under the seat of a prison van. The officer drove the van to a visitor parking lot, where Pender's friend was waiting.
Pender was featured on "America's Most Wanted" while on the lam. Writers portrayed her as a cunning and vicious criminal who manipulated men into doing her bidding.
Images of the supernatural were conjured.
"Vampires, as lore has it, exist on the essence of others. Pender was a vampire in the emotional and mental sense," author Steve Miller wrote in his book, "Girl Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender."
Pender was arrested in Chicago a few months after she escaped. She was returned to Indiana and placed in solitary confinement.
The original case against Pender, in Sells' mind, began to unravel the following year.
Pender 'as a means to that end'
In 2009, Sells discovered what he called a "snitch list," a two-page document in which his key witness listed several people and criminal enterprises he was willing to help police bring down.
Floyd Pennington, a former Marion County Jail inmate who was facing a robbery charge around the time Pender was tried, wrote he was willing to help set up stings and phone taps "or whatever I have to do to make busts on all of these crimes."
The "snitch list" was found in the old police files. It had not been turned over to either the prosecution or defense prior to Pender's trial. The lead investigator on the case, former Det. Kenneth Martinez, was no longer with the police department when Sells learned of the list.
Efforts to reach Martinez this week were unsuccessful.
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Had he known about the list, Sells said, he would've never put Pennington on the stand because it indicated he was willing to testify anything against anyone in exchange for leniency in his own case.
He saw Pender "as a means to that end," Sells said.
"Why should I or anybody else believe what he's saying in the courtroom?" he said.
Now in prison for rape, Pennington told IndyStar last month that everything he said in court was true.
Pender and Pennington did know each other. They developed a pen-pal relationship while she was in jail awaiting trial. He testified she confessed to him while the two were both in the hospital after faking illnesses so they can meet there in person.
Sarah Jo Pender'Female Charles Manson' didn't get fair trial, says former deputy prosecutor who convicted her
"She didn't pull the trigger, but, you know, she had pretty much coerced Rick to, to pull the trigger," Pennington told jurors at Pender's trial, according to a transcript.
Pender said Pennington "made all that up," and the two never talked about their cases.
Armed with the "snitch list" as a new piece of evidence, she sought a new trial. But the Indiana Court of Appeals denied it in a one-page order issued in 2014. Former Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry also refused to sign off on a sentence modification.
Request deniedIndiana court denies Sarah Jo Pender's appeal on double murder conviction
Pender was out of legal options.
But another piece of evidence surfaced years later. This time, it raised further doubts about whether Pender actually wrote the confession letter.
Letter 'never should've happened'
The letter, dated May 16, 2001, when Pender was in jail awaiting trial, was written in print and addressed to Hull.
In the letter, Pender purportedly wrote: "I just snapped, I didn't mean to kill them, it must have been the acid."
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The confession, though, contradicted Pennington's testimony that Hull pulled the trigger at her behest. Still, a state expert witness, who compared the handwriting in the letter with those in others Pender wrote, testified they were all written by the same person.
"I'm absolutely certain there could be no other writer besides Sarah Pender," Leeann Harmless, then a forensic document examiner for the Indianapolis-Marion County Forensic Services Agency, told jurors.
Harmless did not respond to a request for comment this week.
In 2019, a former Marion County Jail inmate admitted writing the letter.
Steve Logan, who initially denied forging the letter, said in an affidavit that Hull "bullied, manipulated and coerced" him into writing it. The two were cellmates at the jail.
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In an interview with IndyStar earlier this month, Logan said he was a young and naïve 18-year-old. He said he was in jail for the first time in his life and feared Hull, who was much larger than him. He acknowledged his mea culpa is long overdue but said he wanted to correct what's wrong.
"It's something that never should've happened," he said. "I, unwillingly, in the beginning involved myself in someone else's situation. I don't think I realized at that time how big of a deal it was."
A few other things about the letter bothered Sells.
It was written in print. Pender typically wrote in cursive. In July 2001, authorities confiscated dozens of jail letters exchanged between Pender and Hull. The confession letter, supposedly written a few months earlier, was missing and appeared only later, when Hull's attorney turned it over to prosecutors.
Hull, who is serving murder sentences that will keep him in prison until at least 2044, told IndyStar earlier this month that commenting on Pender's case now would not be in his interest.
"I wish Sarah the best but I can not be part of anything that she is doing," he said. "I have owned up to my mistakes in life and I am paying for them."
Of the more than 70 murder cases Sells has tried, Pender's is the only one he believes he got wrong. The realization hit him hard. He's made efforts over the past decade to help Pender, including writing an affidavit saying there's no credible evidence she was involved in the killings.
"Here's how bad I feel," Sells said. "If the Supreme Court wouldn't disbar me from representing her, I'd go ahead and represent her myself."
'I deserve to be let home'
The last two decades have been marked by highs and lows, with several years of waiting in between, for Pender and her family. Revelations of the new evidence over the years fueled moments of cautious optimism, followed by disappointment and disbelief that none of it was enough.
Pender acknowledged making poor choices, and she said she's been punished long enough for that.
"I've paid 22 years of my life, five of those in solitary confinement," she said, "I've paid my dues, and I deserve to be let home."
Pender's family, firmly believing she does not belong in prison, has spent the last several years trying to get her out.
Her father hired an attorney who handled her post-conviction proceedings. Her mother hired a handwriting expert who said the confession letter was not written by Pender. Her sister tracked down Logan on Facebook and convinced him to admit writing the letter.
"My heart breaks all the time when I hear her voice and I know a birthday has gone by, a holiday has gone by," said Bonnie Prosser, Pender's mother. "To know that we're so close, but yet it always seems so far, it's been very very difficult."
Her last shot at freedom is likely in the hands of the Marion County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, which was established in 2021 to "identify, remedy and prevent wrongful convictions."
Michael Leffler, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said the unit has received about 450 applications to review cases, including Pender's. The unit is re-investigating "a number of cases," Leffler said, but he declined to say if Pender's was among them.
Pender submitted her application more than a year ago. In September, her father sent an email to the unit expressing disappointment about the long wait. He begged investigators to speed up the process for the sake of his daughter, who has spent more than half her life behind bars.
"Please, please do not give up on her ... you are our last hope," Roland Pender wrote to Kelly Bauder, co-director of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Bauder told Roland Pender the case will be reviewed as any other applicant, and she can't make any promises about when it will happen or what decision the unit will make.
"I come away with the idea that it looks to me like in the state of Indiana," Roland Pender told IndyStar, "once you're convicted, the state of Indiana doesn't make mistakes."
If the unit declines to make a recommendation to release Pender or decides that her sentence is appropriate, her only other option is to apply for clemency to the Indiana Parole Board, which makes recommendations to the governor.
'Never saw a trace of' Charles Manson
Heather Warren met Pender in the early 2000s at Rockville Correctional Facility, where she was serving 18 years for robbery.
The two became close friends. Warren, who'd been in and out of prison since she was a teenager because of drug problems, confided in Pender she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as a career criminal.
So Pender helped her map out a plan to cut her prison sentence through college programs and services to help her get sober, Warren said. She later received associates and bachelor's degrees in human services with a major in business. Pender tutored her the whole time.
"She's very giving, very selfless in that way. She didn't have to," said Warren, who served six years and now owns a cleaning business in Indianapolis. "You don't have to give your time to other people, especially when you're watching them come back and come back and you can't even get out."
Warren said she'd heard the whispers and gossips in the prison dorms about the inmate called the female Charles Manson, but she and others who know Pender said that was fiction.
"You can't put bull---- in the paper, can you?" asked Kelsey Kauffman, who met Pender at Indiana Women's Prison when she began teaching a college program there. "Lots of people warned me and I never saw a trace of that. Never."
Instead, those who know Pender said she is down to earth and soft-spoken, friendly but not pushy, well informed and highly intelligent but not opinionated.
Pender writes essays, draws cartoons and makes hats for chickens to pass the time as she waits for a miracle. Her father keeps a five-foot blanket with an image of a fish that she knitted for him. She became an avid gardener and developed a detailed curriculum to teach gardening in prison.
In 2017, she obtained a settlement following the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that alleged prison officials deprived her of mental health services and kept her in solitary confinement for too long. She donated the money to WFYI.
"Sarah chose WFYI because your radio station is where she was spiritually fed for the five years she was in solitary confinement," Roland Pender wrote in a letter responding to a thank you card from WFYI.
If Pender gets out, she will go home to her wife, Amanda Dixon, whom she married Wednesday. The two met in prison. Dixon, who was released last year, is terminally ill with ovarian cancer. They want to move away from Indiana, Pender said. She'll get her graduate degree in environmental studies in Washington state, where her father lives and where a college had already accepted her.
Sitting in his Westfield home, Sells points at a book on top of a bookshelf. "Race to Justice," which he co-wrote, was about the 1992 murder of a popular Speedway chef. Sells handled the case against that killer, too. He said the two cases reveal a disparity in the quest for justice.
"I prosecuted a man who murdered and beheaded his wife the day before their divorce was to be final," he said. "He gets out next year."
Pender, on the other hand, has more than 30 years left on her sentence.
Contact IndyStar reporter Kristine Phillips at (317) 444-3026 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @bykristinep.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sarah Jo Pender prosecutor no longer thinks she's guilty in murder case